How you save will depend on where you’re going. The best way to save on a cruise to a region with a short season (such as Alaska in summer) is to book in advance. In a typical year, lines offer their lowest published fares typically with savings of 25% or more to those who book those cruises by mid-February of the year of the cruise. If the cabins do not fill up by the cutoff date, the early-bird rate, sometimes referred to as an early-booking discount, may be extended, but any discount may also be lowered meaning fares rise.
In more crowded areas with lots of cruise choices such as the Caribbean in wintertime, before some of the ships move on to Alaska and Europe you may do better with a last-minute booking deal, if you have the flexibility to take advantage of slashed rates with little notice. We’ve occasionally seen prices slashed as much as 75%. But remember: Often, the deepest last-minute discounts are for cruises leaving from ports near airports where the airfares in tend to be quite high. So crunch all the numbers before booking.
We also have to bring up a new wrinkle: Recently Royal Caribbean announced it would no longer discount their voyages if they were less than 30 days from sailing. The rationale was that those who booked well in advance were (understandably) angry that those who booked last-minute got a better deal. Whether or not this vow will stick remains to be seen. We’re guessing if two many ships go out with too many empty cabins, RCL may have to pedal backwards on that promise.
Beyond pricing, early-bird bookings always offer consumers the best selection of cabins, important if you’re traveling with a group that wishes to bunk near to one another; or if you need one of the limited number of accessible cabins that are aboard each vessel. That’s especially true of river cruises, which tend to sell out well in advance. Many lines try to encourage booking up to a year in advance, a strategy that does have some advantages: Booking so far in advance secures your cruise and stateroom, and gives you plenty of time to research airfare and hotel options.
Keep in mind that the most expensive and cheapest cabins tend to sell out first. This is as much price-driven as supply-driven: Those who want the top-of-the-line suites know there are only a handful on the ship, and will pay the price to secure one. Inside staterooms are desirable because they represent the most economical way to get on the cruise. That leaves the meaty center, which on most cruise ships would be your standard balcony stateroom, open for booking. As they say in the cruise business, ships sell out from the top and bottom first.